Eliza Beth Whittington wears a lot of hats: queer activist, painter, urban farmer, parent, singer-songwriter, event organizer…and published poet. Raised on the high plains of northern Colorado and the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains, Whittington claims a deep connection to the natural world and an acute aching for the state of the environment. All that led them — Whittington uses "they/them" pronouns — to create the debut collection Treat Me Like You Treat the Earth, a “provocative and surreal” collection of erotica and environmentalism.
We spoke with Whittington in advance of the launch party for Treat Me Like You Treat the Earth, being held at Mutiny Information Cafe on July 19, about writing, Denver, gender and sexuality, and the natural environment that hosts them all.
Westword: You're launching your new book of poetry, Treat Me Like You Treat the Earth, at Mutiny Information Cafe on Friday, July 19. What's the best part of debuting your first book at Mutiny and with Suspect Press?
Eliza Beth Whittington: Mutiny has been a staple of Denver’s DIY culture for quite some time. I remember going there and buying affordable books in my teens and early twenties, being impressed by all the cool punks outside smoking. Mutiny is the place where I was invited by Brice Maiurro, [now the poetry editor of Suspect Press] to Punketry, [which is hosted by Sarah Rodriguez every second Tuesday at 7 p.m.] and befriended the amazing folks of Black Market Translation and Punch Drunk Press — namely Brice, Sarah and Matt Clifford, who’ve invited me into their community with open arms and invited me to perform and host at multiple events.
In 2017 I was reading an issue of Suspect Press and read poems from Theo Wilson and Suzi Q. Smith, and thought, “Well, if these Denver poets I admire are in here, maybe I should submit some poems to them.” In January of 2018 Suspect Press printed my title poem, "Treat Me Like You Treat the Earth." It was the first time anyone had ever published one of my poems. It was really a launching point for me to start to take my writing seriously. That year I worked extensively as a guest poet with Art From Ashes, got published in Punch Drunk Press, Stain’d Magazine, Spit Poet Zine and others. I also curated and hosted a monthly showcase, Heard at Hub, and put together this collection of poems.
How did you move from that single poem getting published to having the whole collection published?
When I was looking for publishers to publish my first book, Josiah Hesse told me they couldn’t promise me anything, but they’d look at my manuscript. A week after I submitted the collection, Amanda EK and Josiah called me to announce they wanted to publish my book. I remember I was pulling baseboards at work, and I dropped my hammer. I was floored. To go from being an unpublished poet just over a year ago to getting my first full collection published, the whole cycle beginning and ending with the same publishers…it’s truly a small and full circle.
Treat Me Like You Treat the Earth is billed as "provocative and surreal," as well as a "blend [of] ecological activism and erotic sadism," since the core conceit of the book is a comparison of the way humanity treats the earth to a violent rape fantasy. Can you talk about the path you took as a poet to get to that comparison?
After sitting with the collection, I realized that most of the pieces revolved around exploring my own sexual trauma, love odes to nature, and angry poems about what is being done to Her. That piece in particular I wrote after a particularly hard week canvassing for Clean Water Action. I was at home, reading a book gifted to me by Cicada Musselman. All of the poems were these long, loving, sweet poems about the fertile Earth, the great Goddess…and it pissed me off. I realized I was angry, not because I disagreed with the sentiment, but because it is NOT how we relate to the Earth in this society. We rape the Earth. The poem was born from that analogy. I wanted it to be sexy. I wanted it to make you uncomfortable. I liked the idea of the past thousand years of Western society being something that the Earth intended, a dark fantasy of sorts. I wanted to draw the comparison between rape culture and industrial colonialism.
Poetic eroticism in general is something you have some experience with; you've helped run an annual erotic poetry festival here locally. How do you find that eroticism writ large plays in Denver overall? Any challenges that seem peculiar to Denver?
It’s interesting; I’ve helped host the Annual Erotic Poetry Festival with Ted Vaca at the Mercury Cafe, but I can’t say with any certainty that that event is representative of Denver’s literary scene or even assert what Denver’s overall relationship to poetic eroticism is. I do feel that poetry is an inherently sensual art form. I do know we are inherently sexual creatures. I think my idea of eroticism is playing with taboos and writing and performing in sensual ways. The difficulty with hosting events like that is making space for the wildly different approaches to eroticism. The generation gap on subjects of gender, consent and sexuality are very apparent at events like this, even in progressive venues like the Mercury Café.
Personally, I’ve heard quite a few poems at readings in Denver over the years that were labeled as erotica that made me deeply uncomfortable. What was worse was reading a poem about sexual assault and having a man come up to me afterward to tell me how sexy my poem was and how he’d “never look at me the same.” I doubt it is a challenge particular to Denver.
You've been an active part of Denver's poetry scene for a while now. What have been some of your favorite experiences so far?
Oh, man! Sitting at Kit Muldoon’s potluck round-robin style readings. Getting little poem notes in gifted books from Lenny Chernilla. Laughing on my back porch at the Imaginarium with James Scott and Nick Orf reciting poems for each other. Sitting in the Gypsy House basement surrounded by hookah vapor while some of the best poets in the country performed at Lady Speech’s amazing open mic. Denver Poets Day at Cheesman park is always an all-day adventure for a spoken-word nerd like me. Attending the Mercury Cafe on Sundays and performing with Art Compost and the Word Mechanics. Sitting barefoot in an aspen grove, drinking whiskey while taking free poetry classes at Beyond Acadamia Free School. Going to Slam Nuba on last Fridays, screaming my poems at the Mutiny Cafe with Black Market Translation at Mutiny or other dive bars, being invited to the Laughing Goat to sing/recite with Von Disco for Jazzetry. One of my favorite newer events is White Noise Spoken Word open mic hosted by Gio Barabadze at the Corner Beet every Thursday at 6 p.m. The musicians who are regularly there are unbelievably talented.
But one of my favorite things was being the curator and host of Heard at Hub, where I was able to introduce the musicians, storytellers and poets I love and respect to one another. I think it’s important to cross-pollinate across mediums for artists. We get enough of being in an echo chamber with social media.
What's your opinion of where Denver is in terms of poetry?
I can’t keep up with Denver’s poetry scene, it’s growing so fast. I don’t necessarily hold that as a bad thing. Ten years ago it seemed like the two paths to poetry were academic or slam; I feel like there’s a lot more variety and experimentation these days. Someday soon I’d love to join Lighthouse Writers and attend writing events that aren’t performances, but as I said, I’m a sucker for spoken word. I discover new artists to love in Denver every month or so.
How do writers best make room for each other on such a crowded local stage?
Show up at events at which you aren’t performing. Show up at events where you know no one. Show up without an agenda, besides imbibing the spoken word. This is a memo to myself as well. And even if you are performing, make sure that you take the time to reach out to a poet you have not heard before, even if you yourself are feeling shy or nervous. Be specific with your praise or feedback; Lenny Chernilla taught me this. You can never know how those nuggets of praise propel people forward in their craft.
You grew up in Colorado, but not in Denver itself. Where were you raised, and how did that place affect your perspective on life, poetry and everything? How did moving to Denver change it?
My family moved to Arvada from Southern California when I was three. When I was eight or so, our family moved to Gilcrest, Colorado, a very small rural community in Weld County right outside of Greeley. I loved the vast expansive view of the Rocky Mountains and sky, the freedom to bike to the end of town, the smell of cow shit breezes. When I was ten or eleven, we moved to Gilpin County, into a house on an acre, in a mountain community outside of Black Hawk. The mountains moved me in a way the outdoors never had before. I had never been so far away from neighbors or playmates, but I delighted in sitting under lodgepole pines and aspens, reading my books, going to the nearby lake with a fishing pole and even walking the mile or so to the school bus stop. The wildlife, clean air and open space were foreign and beautiful to me.
When I was sixteen, my Dad moved the six of us to south-central Wisconsin. I fell in love with gardening there. It was so simple without rocks and drought and high altitude to deal with! I found the rolling hills and greenery and rain a welcomed relief, but in the town of 900 people, I felt acutely aware of my growing sense of self and first stirrings of my queerness… I didn’t like the rigid gender roles. When my aunt, Mary Camacho, made the offer to let me move in with her and my uncle in Denver, I jumped on it. I moved in with them the month before I turned eighteen, in 2006, and have called Denver home since.
I think my connection with the harsh climate of the mountains has put me more in touch with the delicate relationship our state has with water. Listening to creeks and fishing trout as a youth has certainly fed my spirit, but also living mere miles away from fires in the mountains has put me in touch with the delicate ecosystem we live in, which can be easy to forget in the mild, well-watered, smoggy bubble of Denver.
You identify as queer and go by "they" pronouns. How does your queer identity affect your work? Or does it?
My queerness certainly bleeds into my work, but this book in particular mostly reflects the ten years of writing I did before I learned terms like “gender-fluid," “gender-queer” and “non-binary." Up until the past two years, I did not have the vocabulary or perceived permission to express my gender fluidity. This book is informed a lot by my experiences as a pansexual, polyamourous mother. I’m still trying to wrap my tongue and pen around my gender these days. Half of my lovers and friends are gender-queer or trans, and I feel seen by them, but releasing this book with my pronouns still feels scary. I don’t feel that the overarching themes of the book are my queerness (though I make no pains to hide it either)… It just happens to have been written by a queer person.
Activist wish-list question: If you could wave a wand and change one thing here in Colorado, what would you fix?
This question sent me on a research binge. If I can have one wish, I’d better make it a good one. I went looking up Colorado’s water plan, researching municipal and agricultural water usage, looking at population projections, Denver building codes, looking into education modalities. There are so very many pressing issues in this state: water scarcity, homelessness, police violence. And I am but a poet.
I thought of asking for ending fracking on floodplains…but with climate change, how can we assuredly know what floodplains will be or not be five, ten, twenty years from now? What would prevent energy companies from moving more operations to boreal forest or over our dwindling Ogallala aquifer?
I thought of requiring schools to ensure that students spend a few hours a day or a week in our public lands, learning about our state's flora and fauna, learning wilderness skills…but wouldn’t busing children to and fro only further pollute our air and congest our already packed roads and highways, and add stress to our already underpaid and overworked teachers?
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I thought of requiring new builds to use passive and photovoltaic solar, and install grey-water systems…but in a city now shadowed by mid- and high-rises, how useful is passive solar? How can we assure ourselves that our photovoltaic panels are not sourced from countries mining the raw materials from their own indigenous people’s lands, or practicing human rights or gross environmental pollution in their mines?
What if we gave these occupied lands back to the Native tribes of Colorado? The Ute, Arapaho, Jicarilla Apache, Navajo and Comanche? What about the Crow and Cheyenne? Where would the borders be? Would people already living here still be U.S. citizens? What backlash would Native tribes face in such a situation?
And on and on and on I circle. Wishes are hard.
Eliza Beth Whittington will be joined by Gio Barabadze Mo Ellis, ellie swensson and host Brice Maiurro at the release party for Treat Me Like You Treat the Earth at 7 p.m. Friday, July 19, at Mutiny Information Cafe, 2 South Broadway. For more information, visit the event website.